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Hatcher v. Shelton

August 29, 2008

HORACE HATCHER, TDOC # 323358 PLAINTIFF,
v.
DET. JERRY SHELTON; JAMES (JIM) NICHOLSON, SECRETARY OF DEP'T OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, WASHINGTON COUNTY COMM'RS (# 1-X); WASHINGTON COUNTY DET. CTR.; WASHINGTON COUNTY SHERIFF ED GRAYBEAL, JR.; WASHINGTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEP'T; DEPUTY RUFFO (FNU); DEPUTY TERRY PHILLIPS; MR. GLEN (FNU); AND MRS. CRITE (FNU) ALL IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Ronnie Greer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Seeking only monetary relief, Horace Hatcher, a state inmate confined in a West Tennessee prison, brings this pro se civil action. According to the complaint, this case is being filed under the authority of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 691 (1971), and pursuant to various federal statutes, including 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, 1986; and the Federal Tort Claims Act ["FTCA"], 28 U.S.C. § 2671, et seq. Plaintiff has also asserted multiple claims based upon state law as well.

In the typical prisoner civil case, the Court would screen the complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), but since plaintiff has paid the filing fee, those screening procedures, which apply to prisoners who are proceeding in forma pauperis, do not apply to him. Benson v. O'Brian, 179 F.3d 1014 (6th Cir. 1999). However, the screening provisions in § 1915A which authorize the dismissal of fee-paid prisoner complaints seeking relief from a governmental entity, officer, or employee do apply in this case. See Hyland v. Clinton, 3 Fed. Appx. 478, 479 (6th Cir. Feb. 7, 2001) (distinguishing Benson). Dismissal under these provisions is appropriate where the allegations in the complaint are frivolous, malicious, or fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or if a plaintiff seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. Id. The complaint has been divided into three main categories for purposes of organization.

I. Background

These allegations are more easily understood against the backdrop of plaintiff's criminal case. To this end, the Court takes judicial notice of the filings in United States v. Hatcher, Criminal Case No. 2:06-MJ-84 (E.D.Tenn. Aug. 28, 2006). In the criminal complaint filed in that case on May 1, 2006, plaintiff was charged with attempted theft of property, not exceeding $1,000.00, belonging to the VA Retail Store, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 661. This complaint arose out of an incident which occurred on April 19, 2000, at the store in the VA hospital. The charging instrument alleged that, on that day, plaintiff surreptitiously removed from the display shelf a Polaroid DVD player with LCD display, that he took it to a cashier to return it, that he represented to the cashier that he had no receipt because it was a gift, and that, when he was advised that he could exchange it but could not get money for it, he began bringing items to the counter to exchange for the DVD. Someone then reported seeing plaintiff remove the DVD from the shelf before bringing it to the cashier and, when the report was looked into, it was discovered that one of the DVD players was missing from the display shelf. The VA police were notified, and plaintiff left the store and tried to leave the building. The complaint was signed by Detective Jerry Shelton of the Department of Veterans' Affairs Police.

On May 5, 2006, plaintiff was arrested on the charge, remanded to the custody of the United States Marshals Service, and taken to the WCDC, until such time as the charges were disposed of. On August 17, 2006, plaintiff pled guilty and received a sentence of "time served."

II. The Defendants

A. Non-Suable Defendants

First of all, plaintiff has named the Washington County Detention Center ["WCDC"] and the Washington County Sheriff's Department as defendants. However, the CDC is a building and neither it nor the Sheriff's Department are suable entities under § 1983. See Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Serv., 436 U.S. 658, 690 & n. 55 (1978) (for purposes of a § 1983 action, a "person" includes individuals and "bodies politic and corporate"); Brock v. Warren County, Tenn., 713 F.Supp 238 (E.D. Tenn. 1989) (ruling that a sheriff's department is not a "person" subject to suit); Matthews v. Jones, 35 F.3d 1046, 1049 (6th Cir. 1994) (finding that a police department is not a suable entity). Plaintiff has failed to state a claim against these defendants and they and all claims against them are DISMISSED as frivolous and for failure to state a claim.

B. Federal Defendants

There is also a problem with the federal defendants, Jerry Shelton and James Nicholson, sued in their official capacities. A suit against a governmental official is the same as a suit against the entity itself. Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989). Thus, a suit against these defendant officials is like a suit against the Department of Veteran's Affairs itself. The Supreme Court has found that, "[a]bsent a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the Federal Government and its agencies from suit. Sovereign immunity is jurisdictional in nature." Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994) (internal citations omitted). The United States grants a limited waiver of this immunity through the FTCA, for suits alleging tortious conduct of federal employees, acting within the scope of their employment, but has limited its consent to cases in which a private individual would be liable under like circumstances and excepts from liability claims stemming from discretionary acts. Plaintiff has not provided any proof that this federal agency has given its consent to this lawsuit. Accordingly, his claims for damages against these defendants, in their official capacities, are also frivolous and fail to state a claim. Those claims are also DISMISSED.

C. County Defendants

Likewise, a suit against county employees or authorities in their official capacities is the equivalent of a suit against the county itself. Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985). The liability of a municipality, such as a county, hinges on a showing by a plaintiff that a constitutional violation was caused by a municipal policy, practice or custom. Monell, 436 U.S. 694. Here, plaintiff claims that the WCDC and the VA have been sued countless times for their "endorsement of overtly and flagrantly racially discriminatory practices and procedures." However, to point out the obvious, plaintiff's contentions were made against a building and a federal agency and they are wholly insufficient to show a municipal policy.*fn1

Moreover, the mere fact that prior lawsuits have been filed against a municipality, if any have been, without anything more, provides no basis for municipal liability. See Peters v. City of Biloxi, Miss, 57 F. Supp.2d 366, 378 (S.D.Miss. 1999). Having failed to show a policy, practice, or custom of Washington County or connect it to any constitutional infringement, plaintiff cannot press his claims for damages, including punitive damages, against the defendants, in their official capacities. See, e.g., Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 271 ("[W]e hold that a municipality is immune from punitive ...


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